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Art, Machiavelli and the Eternal Improvement of the Human Condition – How Art Can Change The World


Progress eh? – you can’t stop it.

Lately, I’ve been chewing over the subject of progress in a what’s-it-all-about kind of way. What are we all striving for, and where does art fit into it? Does it have any function beyond the beautification of our environment? Can it really impact upon modern thinking, or is it now out of the loop? Technology has certainly advanced over the last centuries and has irrevocably cemented its central role in our lives; music and art, however, whilst they have undeniably developed, to what extent they have progressed is anyone’s guess.

Ho hum. As I flip through my history books and tap the golden orb of truth that is Wikipedia, I can’t help but wonder what the other civilisations must think at the intergalactic gymnasium of truth. When Humanity stumbles through the door each day in its bulging spandex and luminous pink leg-warmers. As it continually grazes it knees on the treadmill of self-improvement and gets tangled embarrassingly in the rowing machine of enlightenment.

Kirkpatrick Sale’s essay* “Five Facets of a Myth” argues that the very term progress, is a cultural misconception – “nothing more than a serviceable myth, a deeply held unexamined construct”.

Mmm – and I suppose Humanity is just destined to be a couch-potato, and that’s that. We should all give up trying.

Central to his argument is his view that the technological progress we have enjoyed over the last century has failed to herald an era of peace and personal enlightenment, and has instead propelled us to the edge of ecological disaster. Well, I guess he’s got a point there.

Down the ages, so many dubious initiatives have been endorsed in the name of progress, that it’s not hard for Sale to make a convincing case that progress could merely be a handy misnomer – exploited and propagated by those in power or those seeking it.

He goes on to suggest that its origins lay rooted in the Renaissance, in that its proponents “promoted the idea of regular and eternal improvement of the human condition”. As maxims go, I think this is rather good. But if, in reality, this shiny ideal requires a daily routine of 200 mental press-ups, a five-mile ethical jog and no more chocolate, I can see where we might run into trouble.

Furthermore, out of this maxim was later born the materialistic interpretation of Capitalism:

“The eternal material improvement of the human condition”.

And if Sale’s observation is correct, then surely too, the pragmatic approach of Machiavellian politics:

The power and money people will throw at anyone promising improvement of the human condition”.

Which paints a involute and more complex picture than first thought.

The darker side of human nature is a perennial weed that threatens to hijack the most noble ideological rose beds [ttt]**. Where Plato, et al, constructed faultless republics to which we could aspire, Machiavelli demonstrated that those same republics would have to be built from the mud of human frailty.

Machiavelli, so often misattributed as coining the phrase “the end justifies the means”, can be seen to subscribe to this notion of progress through his writings. The end in this paraphrased case denotes the greater good; the improvement of the current human condition. The means is a logical progression of this goal. It implies that we have not yet reached the end of our improvement. It recognises therefore, that we are imperfect, perhaps seriously flawed, and will therefore cut corners, cheat, lie or simply fall short of the mark. This presents an interesting premise.

How can something that is imperfect create perfection?

We humans are attempting to construct a better society. We are quite capable of noble ideas, but as tools to implement this society we are inescapably defective. Machiavelli saw this, and realised that in reality, any large-scale attempt at improving civilisation would inevitably be hampered by the more unpalatable aspects of human nature. So he wrote a rulebook on the realities and pitfalls of governing society in the face of these flaws.

Some saw it as a cynical guidebook on how to seize power in ten easy steps. I prefer to see it as an honest observation of human tendencies: a warning to citizens of the world: “Beware! This is what your leaders may really be like.”

Publicly, a ruler must be seen to be beyond reproach, to be the embodiment of this eternal self-improvement, and must persuade the nation that the human condition is indeed being nourished under his/her leadership, whether it is or not.

It’s why scandal is such a potent political weapon; why politicians go to great lengths to demonstrate the long list of betterments they have brought to us during their tenancy.

Sale’s interpretation of this seems to be that progress is not necessarily something we should embrace. He cites a gamut of statistics that show us that our technological advancement is killing the environment, wiping out flora and fauna, widening the poverty gap, increasing laziness and apathy. He cites increased levels of stress, unhappiness and working hours.

“Progress is the myth that assures us that full-speed-ahead is never wrong. Ecology is the discipline that teaches us that it is disaster.”

Sale’s arguments utilise many undeniable facts and statistics. But I do not believe this necessitates the abolition of our attempts to better ourselves. I would argue his statistics simply confirm that getting fit is no easy task.

The crux of the problem must always return to our flawed human nature. Humans are brilliant and inventive. The collective knowledge at our disposal continues to grow at an incredible rate, and this is something to be admired, not to be deplored. The scientist’s pursuit of the truth is not dissimilar from the artist’s, though the potential applications of his/her discoveries are many times more dangerous.

During the Renaissance, the arts and sciences seemed more closely entwined. They seemed driven by the same philosophical principles – to behold the cosmological truths; to explore the glorious order and harmony upon which our wondrous domain must surely have been built. Perhaps this marriage was an illusion. Perhaps the image of Da Vinci – embracer of both art and science – is too romantic to dispel.

But the truth is, as science presents us with an ever larger arsenal of instruments with which to engineer the world, art explores the hearts of those who would wield them. I feel this is key. And perhaps there is a balance that needs to be redressed if we are to progress optimally as a species.

We are at a point in time where we have at our disposal the means to feed and educate the entire world. We could, if we wanted, shape the world in almost any way we liked. To redistribute wealth and empower the individual in ways that we never thought possible. If we wanted.

Why don’t we want to? As Sale points out, why do so many of us face starvation, disease and subjugation? The answer must lie in self-examination.

Is human nature an immutable constant – something we should just accept will never change – or, like a disobedient bully, has it been left unchallenged all these centuries whilst the bookish philosophers bitch about it behind its back?

I’m fascinated by contemporary myths. Heroes and villains and all manner of archetype appear everywhere in our culture, serving to encode all sorts of snippets of contemporary ethics, just as the inhabitants of Olympus once did in Greek times.

When talking about the archetype of Superman, Elliot S. Maggin says that today, “the superhero is Everyman. Look at the way we live: travelling over the Earth at astounding speeds; … communicating instantly at will with people in the farthest corners of the globe; engineering economics; driving environmental forces, working wonders.”

In the comics, Superman hears someone scream and flies off to save the day. He’s fixing the world. In real life, Superman’s eating a TV dinner and flicking through the channels. He might catch a glimpse of the six o’clock news before he settles down to watch the big match.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh. It was fun to write though. So what’s my conclusion?

Well. Science deals with objective truth. What is physically possible. It gives us a region of potentiality in which to explore, but it offers no advice as to the best direction. Technology is the embodiment of the choices we make. Empty your pockets, what do you have? A nuclear bomb or a nuclear power plant?

If science is our campervan, then the arts – in all its varied forms – is our handy guidebook to the magical road trip of destiny. Politics, then, is the subsequent row that follows when no-one can agree on where to go. Either dad puts his foot down, or there’s a threat to turn right around and go home again (which never happens), or a brittle compromise is reached to put an end to everyone’s sulky tantrums. Either way we’re all going to sit there, cross-armed, feeling a little disgruntled.

How this flight of fancy effects my work is anyone’s guess. The simple beautification of one’s environment is perhaps more significant than most people would give credit for. But if art has another role to play, then maybe it’s to ensure that the guidebook offers the most exciting Technicolor destinations, with as many interesting (and relevant) alternatives as possible. Then, at least, despite the inevitable compromises, it might yet lead to a satisfying road trip.